Last week, we showcased an essay by Brianna Vincent, who had written about messianic themes and the American Monomyth in the videogame Dragon Age: Inquisition. Today’s student offering from our Bible and Popular Culture course likewise looks for a modern messiah in a popular video game, this time focusing on the first-person shooter game released by Irrational Games in 2013: BioShock Infinite. Our guest author is Samuel McKenzie, a soon-to-be third year BA student in the Faculty of Arts, who is majoring in French and German. Samuel took the course because he has always been fascinated by religious and biblical themes in pop culture; he also admits that he enjoyed the opportunity to write an essay on a videogame, and his favourite game to boot! After completing his degree, Samuel hopes to eventually do a Masters degree in Translation Studies.
So, whether or not you are a gamer yourself, give yourselves a treat and listen to Samuel as he considers the way that BioShock Infinity both affirms and disrupts conventional themes of messiahship.
‘You think a dunk in the river is gonna wash away the things I’ve done?’
BioShock Infinite as critique of the American Monomyth
by Samuel McKenzie
The protagonist of a First-Person Shooter (FPS) videogame is typically a mysterious loner who emerges to rescue a community from evil. His morality is absolute, his violence justified, his sexuality renounced or absent. He is composed – almost divinely competent – even when facing odds and taking damage that would surely destroy a lesser man. His abilities may sometimes even seem supernatural. These qualities, then, mean that the FPS protagonist typifies the archetype that is the American Monomyth (Jewett and Lawrence 2002, 47), and one would then expect the protagonist of a game that has been referred to as “one of the best-first person shooters ever made” (online review) to be a particularly striking example of the concept. But Booker DeWitt, protagonist of Irrational Games’ BioShock Infinite, is not your typical messianic archetype. In this essay, I will be analysing how Booker’s portrayal both fulfils and subverts the concept of the American Monomyth, and how this ‘’anti-messiah’’ figure ties in to the Biblical messiah through analogy for the Christus Victor theory of atonement. As this essay will discuss storyline elements and plot details, spoilers will follow.
A Last Chance for Redemption
In many ways, Booker DeWitt is an example of the American Monomyth. He is an outsider to the city of Columbia, the setting of the game. We know very little about his backstory but for a few key elements – such that he is from New York, that he fought in the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890, and that he worked for the Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency. (fig. 1)
Booker renounces temptation, not once in-game showing any sexual interest, or getting caught up in a game of cards or round of drinks. This rejection of temptation parallels a key story in the life of the messianic figure the American Monomyth is intended to replace – Jesus of Nazareth. In Matthew’s gospel, we are told a story of how Jesus was tempted thrice by the devil in the wilderness, and rejected temptation each time (Matt 4.1-11).
Like many messianic figures, Booker faces persecution. Soon after his arrival in Columbia, he is taken for the “false shepherd” foretold of in prophecy by Prophet Comstock, the leader of Columbia’s theocracy. The people of Columbia believe that the false shepherd will lead their “lamb” – Elizabeth, Comstock’s daughter and heir – ‘’astray’’. (fig. 2)
As such, he receives an extremely hostile reception. The rhetoric of a ‘’false shepherd’’ has Biblical roots – the Book of Ezekiel uses an analogy of ‘’false’’ shepherds to decry leaders of Israel who will not care for their people (Ezekiel 34).
As he is our protagonist, we naturally ally with Booker. The player must play as Booker DeWitt, and thereby sees all situations with him at centre. We unconsciously justify his actions as necessary to achieve his goals, and through doing so, are presented with a figure whom we see as unjustly targeted, but one we believe will make things right, as the standard messianic archetype.
I am not a righteous man, I am not a holy man
However, Booker DeWitt is not the standard messianic archetype. The concept of the American Monomyth is not without flaw, and BioShock Infinite subjects it to thorough critique. The messiah is very much an ideal – Sarbatoare notes that the Jewish messiah’s “personal qualities surpass the ordinary standard of human abilities” (Sarbatoare 2004, 54). (fig. 3)
The American Monomyth’s violence is typically seen as sanctified – but in fact, this seems to contrast several Biblical views on the topic. In Genesis 6 – the story of Noah – the Bible claims that the flood was sent because the earth was “filled with violence” (Gen 6.11-13). In Isaiah 59.2-7, Isaiah’s criticisms of the unjust involve accusations that “acts of violence mark their ways”. The sins humans perform are summarised under the concept of their effect – violence (Schwager 1987, 48-51). Booker goes through the game wracked with guilt over his violent past. When he, near its end, encounters a priest performing river baptisms, he snarls at his companion, Elizabeth, “You think a dunk in the river is gonna wash away the things I’ve done?”
BioShock Infinite takes place across different timelines, and through two of Booker’s alternate selves, the game criticises the expectations of the American Monomyth as a social outsider. Lang and Trimble note that the American Monomyth must complete “some violent act that the rest of society is incapable of performing” (Lang and Trimble 1988, 166), and yet is expected to serve as saviour figure. In one timeline, Booker allies with the anarchist Vox Populi, and quickly rises to become a leading figure in their movement. (fig.4) However, when Booker and Elizabeth enter this timeline, they discover that the revolution has destroyed Columbia and slaughtered most of its civilian population. The combination of expectations of abnormal violence and leadership results, unsurprisingly, in a ticking time-bomb.
In another timeline, Booker becomes the architect behind and ruler of Columbia, Zachary Comstock. Comstock possesses an intensely bigoted, binary moral outlook. In one offshoot timeline, Booker finds an elderly Elizabeth in 1984, tortured by Comstock into ideological compliance, overseeing Columbia’s airships attacking New York. (fig.5, fig.6)
Through the character of Comstock, BioShock Infinite manages to highlight the flaw in the American Monomyth’s morality – its absolutism. When the American Monomyth’s black-and-white moral view is coupled with his sanctified violence, the result is someone with absolute belief in his ways and a willingness – or even propensity – to take any ends to achieve them.
Dies, Died, Will Die
But the end Booker takes to achieve redemption is that of sacrifice, in a parallel to the Christus Victor theory of atonement. The Christus Victor theory posits that through his death, Jesus “fights against and triumphs over the evil powers of the world… under which mankind is in bondage” (Gunton 1985, 129). As Booker progresses through the story, he is witness to the injustice, oppression and devastation resulting from Comstock’s extremist rule over Columbia. He realises that to truly defeat Comstock, he must “smother that bastard in his crib”, at the root of all his timelines. This leads to Booker to the site of a river baptism, where he learns that Zachary Comstock is him, in a universe where he underwent the baptism to cope with his post-war guilt, and, believing himself to be absolved of his sins, became a religious zealot. Elizabeth is his daughter – Comstock, infertile from repeated use of trans-dimensional technology, travelled to Booker’s reality and bought his then-infant daughter, Anna, off an indebted Booker in order to have a biological heir. (fig.7)
Booker then undergoes the baptism, but stays under the water and drowns in what appears to be suicide, which is then implied to have undone Comstock’s becoming. (fig.8)
Booker’s death is redemptive. He starts the story travelling to Columbia to repay a debt, and ends it by wiping away another – the blood debt that Comstock has accrued. By sacrificing his own life, Booker takes on the sins of others – the injustice, oppression and violence occurring in the game – and redeems them by ensuring that they never occurred. Romans 6.3-4 mentions the idea of a “baptism into death”, saying that those baptised were “buried with” Jesus in order to “live a new life”. With Booker’s death as parallel to this analogy, the renewal it creates is highlighted, allowing his story to close so that others may begin.
Lives, Lived, Will Live
BioShock Infinite’s protagonist, Booker DeWitt, is both an example and subversion of the American Monomyth, highlighting the key issues of the trope – those of its violence, moral absolutism and unrealistic expectations. And yet, Booker is far from being a failed messiah – he delivers redemption that his more typically messianic alternate selves cannot. Perhaps the game means to show that a messianic figure does not need to be some grand, imposing, perfect moral hero – it can just as easily be a flawed messiah, an imperfect messiah, but a believable messiah. It is realism that makes a fantasy more compelling – and thus, humanising a messiah gives his message more potency. After all, when Elizabeth asks Booker, “Booker, are you afraid of God?”, his response is “No – But I’m afraid of you.”
All references to the Biblical text are from the New International Version (UK).
“List of accolades received by BioShock Infinite.” Wikipedia. Accessed September 26th, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_accolades_received_by_BioShock_Infinite
“Booker DeWitt.” BioShock Wiki. Accessed September 27th, 2015. http://bioshock.wikia.com/wiki/Booker_DeWitt
Gunton, Colin. ““Christus Victor” Revisited. A Study in Metaphor and the Transformation of Meaning.” The Journal of Theological Studies 36, no. 1 (1985): 129-145.
Lang, Jeffrey S., and Patrick Trimble. “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? An Examination of the American Monomyth and the Comic Book Superhero.” The Journal of Popular Culture 22, no. 3 (1988): 157-173.
Jewett, Robert, and John Shelton Lawrence. The Myth of the American Superhero. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002
Sarbatoare, Octavian. “Messianic Ideas: Historical Sources, and some Contemporary Expectations of Fulfilment.” Honours Thesis, University of Sydney, 2004. http://prijipati.library.usyd.edu.au/handle/2123/7194 (accessed September 27th, 2015)
Schwager, Raymund. Must there be scapegoats? Violence and Redemption in the Bible. San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1987.